Ships and sailing in ancient India

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Indus River boat (ca. 2500 BC)

Indus River boat (ca. 2500 BC)

The first people to come to India from Africa, about 50,000 BC, may have come in boats, following schools of fish along the coasts around the Arabian Peninsula. Certainly people in India were using not only boats but sails in the Stone Age, by 3000 BC. These early boats may have been made out of bundles of reeds, like some Sumerian boats.

Model boat from Lothal (ca. 2300 BC, reconstructed)

Model boat from Lothal (ca. 2300 BC, reconstructed)

By the time of the Harappans, in the Bronze Age, Indian ships were sailing up the Persian Gulf to trade with the Sumerians there. The monsoon winds carry boats towards the Persian Gulf in the fall, and back again in the late spring. These Bronze Age boats were probably made of teak wood, and they may have had sails. Boats sailed from baked brick docks with artificial basins built at Lothal and other port towns.

A ship with two masts on a South Indian Satavahana coin (ca. 100 AD, India)

A ship with two masts on a South Indian Satavahana coin (ca. 100 AD, India)

Indian ship-builders kept on using square sails all through antiquity and the Middle Ages, even after Mediterranean sailors began to use triangular lateen sails. Indian sailors did, however, begin to use ships with two masts. They began to use the monsoon winds to sail not only to the Persian Gulf but also to Egypt and East Africa, and east to Southeast Asia. With the strong, steady monsoon winds, they didn’t need the lateen sail. But when Vasco da Gama arrived in the late 1400s with his fancy new sails on his ships, Indian ships could not fight him off.

Learn by doing: go out on a sailboat
More about West Asian Sailing

Bibliography and further reading about Indian sailing:

Indian Mathematics
More about India
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By | 2017-07-22T06:20:41+00:00 July 22nd, 2017|India, Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Ships and sailing in ancient India. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 22, 2017. Web. November 24, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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